From Burundi, South Sudan to South Africa - the shocking refugee crisis in Africa over the past month

In all, the numbers run into the millions and overstretched and underfunded agencies grapple to cope.

THE United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had been a little optimistic,  projecting that in 2015 the numbers of people of concern in Africa would decrease slightly, from 15.1 million in 2014 to 14.9 million, due to repatriation, resettlement and other solutions.

Then a crisis broke out in Burundi. Incumbent president, Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third five-year term in power brought the people to the streets in protest against the move, because they said it violates the constitution and the terms of the peace deal that brought an end to the country’s 13-year civil war in 2006. 

A failed coup attempt has further heightened tensions in the country where thousands of people continue to defy government orders and face police gunfire in the streets in protest against the President. 

This has led to a huge surge in the number of refugees leaving the country. As of May 18, according to UNHCR, over 112,000 Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers have arrived in the neighbouring countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Rwanda since the beginning of April. 

This indicates an increase of over 60,000 new arrivals in the past ten days with many now trapped in dire conditions in a border village on the shore of Lake Tanganyika. Cholera outbreaks are now occurring, with at least 33 reported dead, and sick Burundians are overwhelming the health infrastructure and sanitation facilities in the make-shift refugee camps. 

Refugee agencies, such as UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), have had a particularly testing month, with diverse challenges cropping up in all regions of the continent. 


In Ethiopia, reports came in on May 15 that 2,200 South Sudanese refugees had to be repatriated due to floods. They were moved from flood-prone “Nip Nip” to “Jewi Camp” in western Ethiopia’s Gambella region. As the rains continue, a further 48,000 refugees are being moved from Leitchour camp, located near Nip Nip and also prone to flooding. 

The refugee flow from South Sudan however looks unlikely to subside due to the country’s renewed internal conflict. Following heavy fighting, between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition and allied groups, in South Sudan’s Leer and Rubkona counties, there have been unverified reports of large movements of people towards West Kordofan State, at the border with Sudan. 

The humanitarian situation on the South Sudan border is said to be dire and the UNHCR is said to be working on increasing reception facilities in West and South Kordofan. Unfortunately, in some areas, NGOs and UN agencies operations have had to come to a standstill. 

Depleted food stocks

According to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, hostilities in South Sudan’s Unity State have obliged NGOs and UN agencies to evacuate staff from Leer and other locations. This meant that humanitarian response south of Bentiu, in the Unity State, was stopped. As a consequence, over 300,000 civilians in need of emergency relief do not have access to such life-saving assistance. This violence came at a time when stocks of food are depleted at the height of the traditional planting season. 

In West Africa there was an evacuation of Nigeria refugees, fleeing Boko Haram extremists, in the Lake Chad region of Niger. Niger is currently hosting more than 100,000 Nigerian refugees but, following the insurgent attack on the island of Karamja on April 25, during which 46 Niger soldiers and 28 civilians were killed, Niger authorities in the Lake Region have ordered thousands of people in villages on the islands to evacuate. 

On May 5 the concerned population, living in about 100 villages spread over 74 islands was given a 48 hours deadline to leave the islands and move to the Niger mainland town of N’Guigmi, about 150km North of Diffa. The refugees were forces to take a brutal three day trek during which at least a dozen people have died. 

Stuck in limbo

Meanwhile, responding to the recent spate of the violence against migrants in South Africa, IOM has been assisting victims of the violence. Over 8,000 migrants have been displaced since the violence broke out one month ago and they are currently accommodated in various shelters operated by the government, churches, mosques and NGOs. 

According to IOM, governments from several neighbouring countries have sent buses to help their citizens to return home. But medical agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF), says that there are many Burundians and Congolese who are stuck in limbo: they cannot be repatriated to conflict zones they fled from but they don’t feel safe to re-integrate into communities that they fled from only weeks before. 

These new and renewed crises are already adding to an incredibly heavy refugee and internally displaced person burden in Africa.

There approximately 1 million Somali refugees who have fled their country into neighbouring ones, this year alone there have been at least 3,000 new refugees registered so far. 

Meanwhile the situation in the Central African Republic for has been described by the UNHCR as one of the “largest forgotten humanitarian crisis of our time”. 

There are more than 460,000 CAR refugees in neighbouring countries and some 436,000 people are internally displaced. In the Central African Republic, a total of 2.7 million people are in need of humanitarian aid yet humanitarian assistance programmes both for the Central African Republic and the Regional Refugee Response plan remain dramatically underfunded, with funding levels of only 14% for programmes inside CAR and 9% of the refugee programmes in the neighbouring countries.

Related Content


blog comments powered by Disqus